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Dreaming of and scouting a potential North American open-wheel draft

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So last night we had the NBA Draft (more via ProBasketballTalk here), and this morning, we had the announcement of a new team for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series with a rookie driver in Stefan Wilson.

Because of the rarity of a new team in IndyCar (there hasn’t been one full-time in three years), bringing in a rookie driver, it got me thinking: Who are the blue-chip prospects IndyCar teams could pick if bringing money were no object and the opportunity was there to just pick their drivers on outright talent?

Yes, this will never happen and yes, money remains the calling card to get into IndyCar. I get it, but this is meant to be fun.

It’s probably worth sorting through the prospects first, then envisioning their potential suitors. This is in no particular order, but these are some current and past drivers from the Mazda Road to Indy without a full season of IndyCar experience we should be watching for over the next two-three years:

  • Sage Karam: Has some serious star potential, already four years experience in the Mazda Road to Indy, two championships (USF2000 and Indy Lights) and made a serious case for Rookie-of-the-Year honors at the Indianapolis 500.
  • Conor Daly: Has the name, a single Indianapolis 500 start under his belt, and versatility that’s been unmatched over the last couple years between various series and type of cars he’s raced. He’s hungry for a full-season chance.
  • Gabby Chaves: Has taken the next step in Indy Lights this year, and added sports car racing to his repertoire with testing and racing the DeltaWing. The next possible Colombian star, although he shares dual citizenship with the U.S.
  • Matthew Brabham: Like Daly, has a legendary surname. Fearless, fast and already fairly mature for his age, although he hasn’t been as impressive in Indy Lights as he was on his way to winning championships in Pro Mazda and USF2000.
  • Zach Veach: Veach’s marketing game was long his top selling point, but he’s substantially improved as a driver this year in Indy Lights. Perhaps not the out-and-out fastest prospect, but brings a good package to a team.
  • Luiz Razia: The Brazilian was on the doorstep of Formula One a year and a half ago and has the chops and speed needed to advance next year.
  • Jack Harvey: The Englishman might need another year in Indy Lights if he doesn’t win this year, but has potential.
  • Spencer Pigot: Top American talent in Pro Mazda is probably two years away from IndyCar, but has succeeded in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda.
  • Scott Hargrove: We need another top-level Canadian and the 2013 USF2000 champion is the best Canuck candidate at the moment. Has expanded his horizons to sports cars, and already has bagged three wins in Porsche GT3 Canada this year.
  • Shelby Blackstock: Versatility is his big selling point, having raced Pro Mazda, CTSC GS cars and the Nurburgring 24 this year. Yes, he’s Reba’s son, but he’s got a great work ethic and way of going about developing his career.
  • Garett Grist: Blackstock’s Andretti Autosport Pro Mazda teammate has a win on his belt and is quietly talented. He’s not the first guy you’d pick if you had the chance, but he’s very solid.
  • Neil Alberico: Has shaded Hargrove a bit in Pro Mazda this year. Has potential, but at the moment feels like a driver who – in stick-and-ball terms – had a great freshman or sophomore year but hasn’t made that next level leap.
  • Peter Dempsey: The 2013 Freedom 100 winner hasn’t had a full-time ride this season, so he’s on an unofficial “redshirt” year where scouts would be evaluating him based on his making the most of limited opportunities from 2009 through 2013.
  • Alex Baron: Young French driver perhaps moved up to Indy Lights too soon this year. He could use another year of seasoning before he would declare for IndyCar. That said, has potential and speed to burn based on his USF2000 cameos in 2013.
  • Mikael Grenier: French-Canadian already has a development deal with KV Racing Technology, so he’s halfway in already. Has done fine in limited Indy Lights action.
  • RC Enerson: First of the USF2000 drivers we’d be looking at. Young Floridian’s the equivalent of a college sophomore in racing terms, who’s racing wiser and more mature than he did as a freshman, but still with room to grow.
  • Florian Latorre: French USF2000 sophomore has done the equivalent of transferring colleges, in switching from the Belardi to Cape teams, and has excelled in his new environment. Still two to three years away, but has good racecraft.
  • Jake Eidson: Team USA Scholarship winner is consistent and doesn’t make mistakes, but hasn’t yet found the out-and-out pace needed to be a contender.
  • Aaron Telitz/Peter Portante: The two ArmsUp Motorsports USF2000 teammates are something of a package deal for their mix of humor, racecraft and potential. I’m not sure whether either will ever make it to IndyCar, but they make life fun in the USF2000 series.
  • Daniel Burkett: Same story as above for the Belardi USF2000 shoe, who could parlay his humor and red hair into an opportunity down the road.

INTERNATIONAL PROSPECTS!

If you don’t have a development or junior contract with a Formula One team, or millions in your pockets, it’s going to be hard to make it into F1. So some of these GP2 or GP3 drivers might be worth considering:

  • GP2: Jolyon Palmer, Julian Leal, Stefano Coletti, Mitch Evans, Raffaele Marciello, Tom Dillmann
  • GP3: Alex Lynn, Richie Stanaway, Dean Stoneman, Dino Zamparelli

LIMITED, BUT ACTUAL, INDYCAR EXPERIENCE

There’s several drivers – think a Luca Filippi, Martin Plowman, James Davison, Pippa Mann, and on down the line – who have had IndyCar race experience over the last few years but never a full season in the championship. You’d like to see them have a shot, but I wouldn’t factor them into this hypothetical, completely fictional draft.

SO WHERE COULD THEY LAND? 

Now, obviously, there’s more drivers worth watching than there are available seats. Where could these prospects land over the next few years?

  • Target Chip Ganassi Racing: Figure Tony Kanaan has in the neighborhood of two to three years left, likely, so the potential of a seat in one of the marquee Target cars could become available.
  • Team Penske: Two seats are possible, if Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya opt to hang it up sooner rather than later.
  • Andretti Autosport: A seat only opens here if one of the team’s four drivers moves on. But Michael Andretti has an internal ladder system and could easily promote a Brabham, a Veach or a Blackstock two or three years from now.
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: If Simon Pagenaud was to move up to another team, perhaps a spot opens here?
  • Dale Coyne Racing: Always a possible seat here in the second car.
  • Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing: Much as was done for Josef Newgarden, here’s a perfect place for a youngster to learn and develop if Newgarden gets the call up to a bigger team.

Again, this is purely hypothetical, but is interesting to project over the next couple years if and when there’s a changing of the guard on the grid.

Hunter-Reay, Rahal complete Acura NSX GT3 lineup at Rolex 24

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Photos: Acura
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Verizon IndyCar Series stars Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal will complete the eight-driver lineup for the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona in the pair of Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3s.

These two drivers join the previously announced six-pack of Andy Lally, Ozz Negri, Jeff Segal, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Tom Dyer. The first four are the full-season drivers while Wilkins and Dyer are the third drivers for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup slate of races. Daytona, as a 24-hour race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule, makes up the longest round where four drivers are expected for most entries.

Exact lineups are yet to be determined. Both Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) and Rahal (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda) run Hondas in IndyCar, and switch from their previous teams in IMSA. Hunter-Reay was third driver in the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP last year, Rahal the fourth driver in one of the BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLMs.

Both Hunter-Reay and Rahal will test the car at Daytona next week.

“We’re thrilled to have Graham and Ryan join the Michael Shank Racing effort at Daytona,” said Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development (HPD), the racing arm for Acura in North America. “The debut of the NSX GT3 at the prestigious Rolex 24 will mark the return of the Acura brand to IMSA sports car competition. The addition of Graham and Ryan to an already excellent driver lineup, coupled with the experience provided by Michael Shank and his team, will make the NSX GT3 a serious contender for the GTD class victory at Daytona.”

Jenson Button receives honorary degree from University of Bath (VIDEO)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 25:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda in the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Jenson Button became ‘Dr. Jenson Button’ earlier this week when he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bath in England.

Button, 36, made what looks set to be his final Formula 1 appearance at the end of last month in Abu Dhabi, drawing the curtain on a 16-year stint at the pinnacle of motorsport.

The Briton won the F1 drivers’ championship in 2009 and was runner-up in 2011, as well as winning 15 grands prix.

Button added to his list of achievements by picking up an honorary degree in engineering from the University of Bath earlier this week.

“I didn’t go to university and work hard in my early years, but I would say that a lot of my achievements in motorsport are down to my engineering understanding of a racing car,” Button said when addressing the audience at the ceremony.

Button does have a contract to race for McLaren in 2018 should both he and the driver be keen, but looks unlikely to return.

Button does remain keen to race occasionally through 2017, expressing an interest in racing in Super GT and rallycross.

Williams expecting Stroll to make mistakes through debut F1 season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 24:  Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams talks in the Paddock  during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Formula 1 chief technical officer Pat Symonds says he expects 18-year-old Lance Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie season in 2017.

Williams announced last month that Stroll would be stepping up from Formula 3 to a full-time F1 seat for 2017, replacing the retiring Felipe Massa.

Stroll has an impressive track record through his junior racing career, becoming the youngest ever FIA F3 champion in 2016.

However, his on-track actions have caught attention for the wrong reasons at times, with the Canadian receiving a race ban in June 2015 for causing an accident.

Speaking to Reuters, Symonds said that Williams is braced for Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie campaign as he gets to grips with life in F1.

“Of course he’ll make mistakes and we’ll be repairing cars. These things happen as part of the process,” Symonds said.

“If you look at his Formula 3 career, in 2015 he was having quite a few accidents in that. The Monza one is just staggering.”

However, Symonds has no doubt in Stroll’s talent, believing the youngster to have proven himself during his two-year stint in F3.

“He hasn’t won that championship with anything other than a lot of skill and maturity,” Symonds said.

“For a guy that young, he’s driven really well in pretty well every condition. He’s raced well, he’s led at the front. He’s come through the field a bit, he’s driven well in the wet.

“He is the real deal.”

Besides his F3 commitments, Stroll has also completed an extensive F1 testing program through 2016 that saw him conduct running in a 2014-spec Williams in order to prepare him for his race debut in Australia next March.

Ecclestone: Rosberg not among F1 greats, ‘a world champion and nothing else’

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates finishing second on the podium and winning the World Drivers Championship during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone does not believe that the recently-retired Nico Rosberg will be remembered as one of the sport’s all-time greats, saying that the German is “a world champion and nothing else”.

Rosberg won his maiden F1 drivers’ championship two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from racing just five days later.

The news came as a shock to the F1 community, including Ecclestone, and has raised questions about the legacy that Rosberg will leave.

Speaking to Press Trust of India, Ecclestone said that he would not place Rosberg in the same realm as many of his peers who have won multiple titles, including Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.

“Let’s just say he is a world champion. The other names that you mentioned have obviously won more than a few times and have achieved more,” Ecclestone said.

“So I would just call Nico a world champion and nothing else.”

Ecclestone did concede that not having the defending World Champion on the F1 grid in 2017 would not help the sport, a situation that has not arisen since 1994 following Alain Prost’s final title win.

“[He’s] not as popular as Lewis but Nico was a very popular driver,” Ecclestone said.

“So his absence is certainly not good for Formula 1.”

Rosberg became the fourth driver to retire after winning the World Championship, following in the footsteps of Prost (1993), Jackie Stewart (1973) and Mike Hawthorn (1958).